In King Richard, tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams are the latest to get the sports biopic treatment with minimal deviance from the formula, all filtered through the lens of their somewhat eccentric father Richard (Will Smith). The film begins with the Williams family in Compton, with Richard juggling their training schedule (and three other daughters) on opposite schedules with his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis). As Richard woos noted trainers (first Tony Goldwyn as Paul Cohen, later the slick Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci) for his daughters, we see the divergent journeys for both Venus and Serena as the elder sister is given preferential coaching and begins racking up youth tournament wins. The real character study begins as Richard pulls the girls from competing, instilling a delayed power struggle between a father trying to protect his children from the pressures of the world and two young virtuoso athletes ready to take control of their own destiny.
Those wary of the possibility of the story of the achievements of prominent Black women told from the vantage of a man need not completely worry, as Venus begins to become the film’s protagonist as it progresses. But what King Richard is moreso interested in is telling a story of the sacrifices of previous generations of Black families, how dreams have demanded compromise and struggle in the hopes for better lives for those to come. This may seem as equally familiar a point to make as the basics of the sports genre the film operates within, but the film succeeds here with the deep well of feeling it summons. It’s clear that the tellers of this story want to see such legacy as integral to that of the Williams’ sisters, and it’s an essential piece of nuance for an otherwise by-the-rulebook narrative.
The film takes a complex man, one who has generated his own media gravitational pull, and Zach Baylin’s script attempts to view him on broadly emotional Capra-esque terms. It’s a portraiture of imperfections, but hardly warts and all as it might like us to believe, accepting Richard’s shortcomings as features rather than bugs. This creates an air of authorized biography, this limited vantage nudging Richard into archetypal territory, and the movie along with him. There is a lack of ambition both in storytelling and characterization that keeps the film at the level of underdog sports story we see regularly, and the emotion it generates is only able to achieve so much in setting the film apart.
Which leaves Smith with the task to deliver, even though the film is ultimately less of a star vehicle than it initially appears. It’s a return to crowd-pleasing weepy territory for the actor, one that is more successful than a decade or so of duds, but still not as triumphant as we might have hoped. As Richard Williams, Smith is prone to affectation over idiosyncrasy, pitching to the back row instead of his co-stars; you can’t deny that he does some moving work (especially opposite the superb Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena) but he is best when monologuing, selling the themes of the film better than the character.
The film’s best moments come in the hands of the gifted, often underrated Aunjanue Ellis. While Brandy is somewhat frustratingly presented as very much the functionary wife role found in similar biopics, less of a fully developed character than one expected to deliver monologues at strategically placed moments, Ellis delivers a grounded performance that gives the film its most richly felt passages. Smith is the headliner but she steals their scenes, and steadies Smith’s performance in the meantime.
King Richard is the third feature from director Reinaldo Marcus Green, bouncing back from the unfortunateness of this year’s woebegone Joe Bell. If not as acutely observed as his strong debut Monsters and Men, this film does restore his subtle, absorbing visual skill and reestablishes his strong potential as a capable shepherd for midrange American drama. Though he best handles the film’s transition from Richard’s perspective to Venus’s, one just wishes he had tougher, more complicated material to work with.